Taxpayer advocates Tuesday chastised Richland County for automatically seeking a sales-tax increase instead of spending the past two years perfecting a transportation improvement package going to voters Nov. 6.
The group, called Not Another Penny, criticized what members called “a $700 million slush fund” of projects to build roads, bike lanes, sidewalks and trails. They said since the projects on the county’s work list are not prioritized, taxpayers have no assurances which will be done.
Don Weaver, with the S.C. Association of Taxpayers, said he supports money to stabilize and improve the Midlands bus system but was unable to persuade Councilman Jim Manning and members of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce to compromise on details of the upcoming referendum.
In conversations about eight months back, Weaver said, he suggested the county seek less than a full penny-on-the-dollar to pay only for public transit.
He said the group pledged “not another penny” until the county considers a smaller sales-tax increase, lays out a prioritized list of road improvements and proves it has no other funding options to pay for its bus system.
Weaver also said the county’s intent to borrow up to $450 million that would then be repaid with sales-tax proceeds jeopardizes the county’s financial stability.
The council wants to borrow the money so it can fund multiple construction projects at once, making quick progress across the county.
But Rusty DePass criticized that approach. “They’re not waiting to ‘pay as you go,’” he said, “so we’re going to be paying a huge amount of the funds in interest.”
Under a council-approved plan, the tax would be collected for 22 years with proceeds divided:
• 63 percent for roads
29 percent for public transit
• 8 percent for sidewalks, bike lanes, greenways and intersection safety.
The sales tax on general purchases in Richland County now is 7 cents. The additional penny would apply to groceries and, altogether, the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors estimates it would cost an extra $253.34 a year for the typical family of three.
Manning, in an interview, said it was also pertinent to note that South Carolina has one of the lowest gasoline taxes in the nation. The state gas tax pays for road improvements.
“If people will be honest with themselves, people who move here ... they all say it, ‘Oooh, these taxes are unbelievably low,’” Manning said.
On the issue of a compromise, Manning said Not Another Penny founder Michael Letts was at the meeting with Weaver and had agreed to compile a list of transportation projects “that he felt could be paid for by other means.”
“He never followed up,” Manning said Tuesday.
Letts is running against Manning, a Democrat who represents a Northeast Richland suburban district on council.
Tuesday’s news conference, held at the Richland County Administration Building, attracted 12 men, including Tea Party members David James and Allen Olson, both of whom live in Lexington County.
Weaver said the anti-tax group would be working to persuade voters to reject the penny sales tax increase to encourage County Council to come up with “a decent compromise” that protects taxpayers and keeps the buses rolling.
Letts said the referendum is “even worse” than the plan defeated by voters in 2010 because it would provide less money for public transit and more to other projects “yet to be determined.”